Rock Falls superintendent asks: Are we the safest we can be?

Sauk Valley schools continue to improve building security, train for active shooters

The U.S. flag is raised to half-staff at Dixon High School on Friday. President Joe Biden ordered all U.S. flags at public places be flown at half-staff until sunset on Saturday to honor those who died at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24.

As soon as Chris Lensing heard about the fatal mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, his thoughts went straight to his responsibilities as superintendent of the East Coloma Nelson Elementary School District in Rock Falls.

“You start immediately thinking: Do we have all our ducks in a row? Can we do better? Are we the safest we can be?” he said.

One fact hit home: the Uvalde victims – 19 students ages 8 to 10 and two teachers – mirror the K-8 school population at ECN.

Lensing encouraged discussions about school safety that day.

“We alerted the staff to utilize that time to go over our safety plan,” Lensing said. “If students have concerns, have a conversation at that point.”

Planning and training for school intrusion incidents is ongoing for local schools. The Regional Office of Education 47 for Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties requires contingency plans and training, such as drills for active shooter situations.

Lensing said he and the superintendents at Rock Falls High School, Montmorency and District 13 schools recently reviewed their school safety plans with local law enforcement agencies.

ECN also brought in Chris Lopez, a consultant who specializes in ALICE training, which establishes public safety protocols with schools and workplaces following the alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate procedure in emergency situations.

ALICE training was at the heart of the preparedness plan that was in place May 16, 2018, when school resource officer Mark Dallas intercepted a student with a firearm outside the Dixon High School gym during a graduation rehearsal.

In a Gazette and Telegraph story from July 2, 2021, retiring Dixon police Sgt. Mike Wolfley, a leading figure on the law enforcement side of workplace preparedness, said community alertness is essential.

“Officers, counselors, staff – try and look for red flags,” Wolfley said at the time. “But sometimes those red flags are there, sometimes they aren’t. In a workplace, you work with [human resources] and supervisors. You learn procedures. Maybe there is a problem with mental health, maybe something else that could be a triggering moment. You just don’t know.”

ECN is set up as a single-entry campus. Visitors come through one door and are identified by a video camera. The entrance is monitored, and visitors are not allowed in until they pass a visual inspection. Visitors are provided an escort.

Lensing said other ECN upgrades were planned before the Uvalde shooting – recommendations that came from a safety team of teachers and administrators. Over the summer, more security cameras will be placed around the building. A key-card access system also will be installed.

Certified staff will be able to use key cards to gain entry, but only at times they are permitted to be there.

In a file photo from March 23, 2022, Sterling Public Schools Superintendent Tad Everett takes part in a discussion at a board of education meeting. He was interviewed  about student safety in the context of active shooters and other emergencies in the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas shooting.

For Sterling Public Schools Superintendent Tad Everett, student safety is an ever-present concern.

“I had people call me, several parents reach out [and ask], ‘Is this a reminder?’ ” he said. “And the honest answer is no, it’s not a reminder because this is on our minds. And it is the most important thing we do every single day, and that is, work diligently at keeping students and staff safe.”

Improvements to building security also are planned for Sterling Public Schools. Challand Middle School already has a safety vestibule. But a bond issue was passed at the May meeting to provide money to improve entrance security at several facilities.

The first to receive an upgrade will be Washington School, originally constructed in the 1950s, and then Lincoln School. Improvements at Franklin and Jefferson schools will come later.

This rendering that was on display at Sterling Public Schools shows the renovation planned for Washington School, which will add a more secure entrance.

Everett said the aim of the renovation is to create clean sight lines from the office to the entrance, but cameras and door locks controlled from the office also are part of it. When the district began making renovation plans before the pandemic, Everett said, law enforcement input was essential.

The relationship with first responders includes providing immediate access to the building, security infrastructure, and banking on the proximity of CGH Medical Center and the school’s resource officer.

“All of those things are done with this intent in mind – that these [incidents] don’t last long. … They’re short, and so quick, rapid response from law enforcement is vitally important,” Everett said.

School safety is more than working with law enforcement – SPS also uses the ALICE protocols – and hardening entrances, Everett said.

There is an opportunity to address underlying issues that could forestall violence by young perpetrators. Providing emotional support to students who are exhibiting anger or struggling socially is important, too, in light of anecdotal evidence that many school shooters exhibit similar traits.

“We’ve increased our social services to our students,” Everett said. “Every one of our buildings has a guidance counselor now. We have social workers in every one of our buildings whose job is working with students who are struggling – social, emotional – and hopefully never to this extreme, but to the point that we’re providing early services. We’re working with outside agencies to provide additional services to struggling students.”

Students whose family structure is deteriorating or those identified as needing coping mechanisms are given extra attention. The administration is active in providing “social-emotional aid to give them avenues by which to cope and to deal with life.”

At Dixon Public Schools, Superintendent Margo Empen gave her annual presentation of the district’s crisis plan to the school board at its Nov. 17 meeting. The package had been expanded after the administration met for its annual review with law enforcement and fire departments, she said.

Three-ring binder contains the revised Crisis Plan that was presented to the Dixon Public Schools board of education at its regular meeting of Nov. 17, 2021. Superintendent Margo Empen said when the district started crisis planning years ago, the materials fit in a two-pocket folder. Called a "living document" some of its protocols were revised this fall to accommodate changes revealed after a bus crash.

“We’ve learned a lot over the years,” Empen said, noting that the reunification protocol – how to reunite students with parents after an incident – needed to be updated. She said at the time it was a “living document,” pointing out that a bus accident that took place off-campus tested some of the protocols and that “a couple of things had to be tweaked after that.”

The crisis plan filled a thick three-ring binder.

“This used to fit in a nice two-packet folder,” she said in presenting it to the board for inspection.

The Division Street entrance to Madison Elementary School, at left, and Reagan Middle School, at right, which will be upgraded and receive new directional signs for visitors.

Madison Elementary School’s first floor will be reconfigured, and security measures will be added to the Division Street vestibule doors as part of a renovation project planned for this summer.

Kevin Schultz, director of building and grounds, gave an overview of the project to the Dixon Public Schools board at its regular meeting Jan. 19. The renovated entrance will include a call box for use by visitors and a security camera and entrance buzzer that will be controlled by office personnel.

At the state level, the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union at 135,000 members, issued a call for political action after the Uvalde shooting and gun violence in Buffalo, New York.

“It’s time to stop watching these tragedies and start doing something,” said a statement released jointly by three IEA officers, President Kathi Griffin, Vice President Al Llorens and Secretary-Treasurer Tom Tully. “We ask for our leaders to come together. This is not a partisan issue. This is not a gun rights issue.

“This is an issue of children being able to attend school and be safe, of families of color being able to go to the grocery store in the middle of the day and not be targeted by violence, and of helping all of America not live in fear.”

All these precautions can’t change an undeniable fact: Gun violence at schools and other public places continues.

For Lensing, it’s a troubling prospect.

“Are we doing everything to keep our babies safe?” he said.

Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.